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René Staud, Let There Be Light

When he invented the Magicflash in 1983, the world of automotive photography was changed forever. But this futuristic invention was only one way in which the German photographer innovated his way to the top of his craft, making his name shooting Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, among many others, along the way. In an exclusive interview with SpeedHolics, the celebrated photographer and founder of Staud Studios tells us tales of fortune, ingenuity, and relentless ambition

Words Sean Campbell

Photography René Staud

Fuerteventura, Spain, 1972. A 21 year old René Staud is standing on a sand dune on the undeveloped, unfrequented island of Fuerteventura. He was about to take the photograph that would launch a tourism boom. Set against the glittering Atlantic ocean backdrop, a dune buggy launching off the ridge,  front wheels mid-air, the rear pair just grazing the surface of the sand. “The Leap over the Dune” sparked a sense of adventure and ignited the first major influx of international travelers to the now popular Canary Island. Just a day or two prior however, Staud was little more than a clerk in a photography shop in Stuttgart. Freshly trained as a photographer, he was making ends meet at Foto Krauss, when an ambitious real estate developer walked in. He boldly asked for the most expensive camera available. When Staud showed up to the man’s office that afternoon to deliver the camera, a chain of events were set in motion that would kickstart his career. Around a decade later, his invention of the Magicflash propelled Staud into the higher echelons of automotive imagery, and led to him becoming one of the most influential and important car photographers in history. But let’s go back to the beginning...

“I came from an artistic family. My father was a wood sculptor. But this was post World War II  Germany, so there wasn’t a good income,” Staud offers.

“He sold some small works from time to time, but there was a problem. When he sold a piece, he would have to describe it in words to the next potential customer. He had no pictures.” It was this necessity that led a ten year old Staud to pick up a camera for the first time. Even in those first moments, he had a fascination with lighting. “He bought a film roll and lent me his camera. I decided to make these offset images, contrasting light and dark effects. We used these images to sell works within weeks. That's when I realized you could use pictures to communicate or even sell. Over the next few years I became the photographer for all the makers and artisans on my street.”

By the time he was 14, Staud had won his first photography awards. “There was a competition at my local youth center, where we went to learn about music and art, and in my case photography. Kodak had sponsored this competition to promote the new Instamatic camera, the first camera with a film roll, ready to shoot. 50 of us had to go out and shoot in one day – whatever we wanted, houses, people, etcetera.”

“My theme was ‘industrial dynamic’. I took pictures on the street and at the station of trains passing by. I had no idea what I was shooting because we just handed the cameras back at the end. A few weeks later I learned that three of my images finished in the top 5. I came first, second, and fifth!”

With his prizes, Staud showed his first flair for business and investment. “I traded the three small cameras I won for one SLR (single-lens reflex) camera.” And so René Staud the photographer was born.

The conditions in which Staud grew up allowed him, or perhaps forced him, to pick up skills quickly, “Being born into this handcraft-oriented family, and in my neighborhood, where wood and steel and such things abounded, I had to learn things quickly. I used all the lessons at the youth center to get better. I built my own black and white lab at home – it was half a washroom and half a darkroom!”

Armed with his trusty SLR and a place to develop his work, the teenage Staud began to seek an income from his passion. “There were these dance clubs every Wednesday and Saturday for young people. I went and took pictures every Wednesday. Then I’d develop them at home, and go back to sell them on Saturdays and take more to sell Wednesday again! It was great for me but not great for my school results.” It didn’t take long for Staud to meet his first challenge as a young semi-pro photographer – color images. One of the markers of his career is how he’s always managed to get ahead of the game and invest in the future, and it was the same in the late 1960s.

“Color prints were now in big demand, so I needed a place to develop my images. This was the beginning of a good friendship with a local photo store I’d go to to develop in color. And this was how after school, I got my first job. The photographer in the store had fallen in love with this beautiful dancer who was moving to Melbourne, and he was set on following her! When I showed up on my last day of school, the owner said ‘You’re here early. Shouldn’t you be in school? I just told him ‘No more school. Forever’! Right then and there he offered me the photographer’s job, but only taking passport photos and things like that. I started a few weeks after that and started to do my photography training. He paid me very little but it was work, and I still shot parties on weekends.”

The next few years saw Staud go on something of an early career odyssey which would bring him through the automotive world and right back to photography. Because of the low pay at the shop and the financial demands of his training, he took up a job at a friend's gas station, pumping fuel, cleaning cars and doing handiwork on cars. One gas station job led to another – one which was often frequented by VIPs. “I got great tips from them, but I worked all day and came home late at night tired and covered in oil. I went there for the money but I lost a lot of friendships because I couldn’t go out.”

Tired of the lifestyle, Staud took his newly earned photography diploma and got a job at Foto Krauss, where this story began. “Just a few days after I started, that businessman – the Fuerteventura property developer – walked in.” In his personal essay “My First Car Shoot” which details his meeting with the developer and delivering the camera to his office, Staud writes: “As I sat there in the secretary’s office and the minutes ticked by, I was starting to sweat… after an hour, the man came out of his board office and just said in passing, ‘Oh, you’re still sitting there. I don’t have time now… come down to the car with me quickly.’ And I ran down beside him into the garage and was suddenly sitting in his Opel V8 Diplomat with all the cardboard crap on my lap, and he said, “Please don’t try to explain the camera to me now, I still have calls to make…

Twenty minutes later we were standing at the airport, a barrier went up in front of us, and there I am looking up at this giant plane, his private jet…

I don’t know how it happened, anyway, at some point the doors are closed, the engines start, the plane takes off, and four hours later we land somewhere in the Atlantic on an island that nobody in Germany knew about… I never went back to the camera store. Over the coming months, Staud spent time coming and going from Fuerteventura, photographing marketing materials for the developer’s company as he turned the deserted island into a powerful tourism hot spot. The most historic of these is the “Leap over the Dune”.

Now a made-it, professional photographer, Staud spent the 1970s carving out a niche for himself shooting product images for a range of high end companies, but he was quickly becoming more and more interested in cars. “I had a Porsche and a Mercedes-Benz S Class. But back then, there wasn’t much really good marketing for these brands. It wasn’t until the post war recovery was almost complete that they really started to think about better advertising materials. So in 1982, I started to think about how I could make money in cars. These car companies now had huge campaign budgets – no questions asked, big money.

But here is the problem I noticed: When you shot a car in the street or in the garage, it looked like anyone could do it. What style of photography could make cars so unique and sexy? I had to shoot cars like they were jewels. No more street, no more forest, no more supermarket family friendly.”

This realization marked the beginning of a period of experimentation that would eventually lead to the invention of the technology that would take Staud into the stratosphere — the Magicflash. “I began studying with small scale models of cars, experiment with light effects. No spotlights or light cubes worked on reflective cars. The sexy, glossy look you can only create with very smooth, very direct light. You need a lightbox. The first one I made with a shoebox. I illuminated car models with it and it worked. But then I needed to adapt this in large size. And I would need one hundred thousand lights in my box! I was told I was crazy – that I’d use it two days a year only and go bankrupt. But if I wanted to follow my passion, I had to find a style that made me unique. That would give me access to the very best clients.”

So Staud borrowed and invested in a huge lightbox that would put that now ubiquitous sheen on a car in the studio. This was the Magicflash.

Staud was convinced that his invention would cause a huge stir, that it would excite people and make him a star in the industry. In 1982, he decided to throw a huge launch party for the Magicflash, forking out on catering, entertainment, VIP treatment. “Six weeks before the launch I met a videographer who wanted to shoot a whole film for big screens to showcase the Magicflash. I was sold, and ended up buying out five parking areas nearby, and screens on the street. I thought we could get 2,000 people to join! … In the end, 20 people came… It was a catastrophe. More screens on the street than people in the audience. I had catered for at least 600! I went to the office and shut myself away, deciding to quit this dream.”

While Staud was laying low, hiding his shame and embarrassment, there came a knock on the door from an unexpected guest. “It was the marketing manager for Mercedes Benz.

He asked me if he could book me for 80 days that year, and 250 days the next.” While virtually nobody had come to the party, the right people had come. It wasn’t only the Mercedes-Benz leaders that had come either…“30 minutes later, a similar guy came from Porsche.” With that, Staud was the photographer for the country’s greatest car manufacturers.

Staud found himself in such high demand through the mid 1980s that he was barely able to keep up with his schedule. “In 1986 I had 1,000 shooting days in a year! How was this possible?”

Staud had to get creative to meet demand, creating better workflows and being more efficient than any other photographer had ever been. “I needed a new studio. My architect came to watch me work for a few weeks and came up with his plan. We built Staud Studios in 1985 and opened in 1986. It was hard work. 12 hours shooting, six hours creating and developing, six hours planning the studio and directing the build.”

“I thought I’d need four people to work there, but in the end I needed more than thirty! The only way I managed was to set up more workstations and break down the shots into different flows andsetups. I mean, BMW gave me 28 cars at once! How could we do this? So I set up these different stations and focused on different things – in this corner we’d shoot the dashboard, over there the front, over there the wheels and so on. We worked all day and night. In daytime we’d make the beauty shots, and at night we’d bring in junior staff and freelancers and go right through the night on the nitty gritty.”

While Staud is most famous for inventing the Magicflash, a lesser known fact is that he was one of the first commercial photographers – if not the first – to embrace retouching and editing technology in his work, and at scale. What this meant for this work turnover was mega efficiency, mega scalability, and mega success.

“In 1998 I was at Photokina (the world’s largest photography and imaging industries trade fair). I was asked what I thought the most important development or instrument was going to be in the industry. I said retouching technology – and nobody agreed with me. They all said it was too expensive to buy the machines, that it was a poor investment.”

Just like he’d done before, Staud went against the grain and followed his instincts. “After six months I owned three machines and had nine people working them. My turnover was incredible.” What this retouching technology gifted Staud Studios more than anything else, was time, and as a result, access to volume. “There was a shoot I did for the S Class. 500 shots. But there was a mistake! The wrong grill had been installed on the model I’d shot, and this made it look like an E Class. Anyone else would have to go back and shoot the whole thing again – months and months of work. But we were able to retouch them and stay on track, while I prepared the next batch of work.”

Staud Studios has kept up with, or stayed ahead of, the times, to the point where it is still one of Europe’s most respected studios, and Staud is still known as a legend in the field of automotive photography. His sons have taken over the majority of business operations, and the company has recently merged with the celebrated global creative production company Mediamonks. But Staud now has all the time in the world for shooting as a passion. Before we get off our call, he shows me what he’s up to today. A gorgeous Porsche 917 – the car that dominated sports car racing in the early 70s, including wins and Le Mans in 1970 and 71. Still fascinated by classic cars (like ourselves here at SpeedHolics, and our readers), I ask for one more minute of his time. I’m keen to hear his thoughts on classic race car culture, and how it stacks up against modern car manufacturing.

“Nowadays everything is overdone,” He affirms,”The best period was in the 70s, when cars often had maximum 200hp. This was pure driving. The development back then was immense.”

He wraps things up by explaining his gripe with modern cars. “They’re not so much fun. Cars today have everything, but they don't have identity. You can’t control a 1,000 hp car – it controls you. That’s why we’re so into classic cars. For mass mobility, more safety was a good thing. But for fun, it was bad.”

We’re on the same page then.


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